Back in a time before marketing ruled the world, us plucky brits took one look at the brash offerings from our US cousins before stoutly refusing to adopt the term ‘mountain bike’ for the bastard offspring of a cruiser and a spindly road bike. Over-Priced, Over-Hyped and Over-Here we decreed, while the rump of our once world leading bicycle industry churned out slightly crap copies under the guise of the ‘All Terrain Bike‘ or ATB.
I like that; it speaks of a bike to go adventuring on. While we’re short of mountains certainly in the bits of geography not delineated by Celtic borders, we’re at the spiritual epicentre of rolling hills and wooded acres. So what happened to the plucky Muddy Fox and the generation of class defining ATBs? Marketing, that’s what happened; a huge rolling slab of hyperbole and nonsense sliced into ever thinner segments of niche.
I should know, I’ve owned most of them. A special bike for any terrain, but no bike for everything. Some with gears, some with suspension, some with neither of those, some with one size wheels, some with bigger ones, some confused examples with different ones at either end. Short top tube, long top tubes, four bar, faux bar, single pivot, virtual pivot. I’m put in mind of Billy Joel and ‘We didn’t start the fire‘ – endless stuff passing us by and somehow missing the point.
The point being mountains. Where mountain bikes should live. Not domesticated onto flat lands and herded into trail centres. Not polished, upgraded and paraded in virtual show rings. There’s something viscerally bipolar about mountains – both comforting and forbidding, warm and cosseting within their deep valleys* and terrifyingly vertiginous at their peaks. And there’s human magnetism in those rocks, attracting seemingly normal people to risk injury and even death on slopes made up of something like sleeping adrenaline.
Wake it up with waxed planks in winter or chunky tyres come summer. Where bike parks click with the tortured transmission of the downhill Stormtrooper collective – sweating in heavy body armour and astride massive forgings holding mighty springs between two burly wheels. It’s a long way from the all terrain bike, and a long way from what I come to the mountains for. For balance, there are some truly brilliant bike-park trails that you could ride every day for the rest of your natural life without boredom setting in. But there are many, many more in the wild mountains which flick the soul-switch marked ‘now I’m truly alive‘.
Much of the PPDS was ridden on bike trails across seven centres all of which were under assault from heavy rain and – in the case of one epically chilly chairlift – sleet. I have never been so cold on a bike before – five layers on top, waterproof socks down below and multiple sodden pairs of gloves at hand. We started early and high after finally ejecting ourselves from the world’s most expensive coffee shop. I’m pretty nesh but staring at stair-rod rain at €8 a coffee isn’t my idea of a good day out.
Neither is hiding in the lift station above Champery with 3 degrees registering on the GPS, a group shiver shaking mud and rain from barely recognisable forms and another 60k to ride. One descent from there into a brilliant food village serving Tartiflette, proper coffee and even beer perked us up enough to appreciate Nigel was suffering from something like first stage hyperthermia. We ran for the lower hills to get him home on a rooty trail made slick by the constant wet.
Riding this was a lot of fun. Now the rain was more warm than icy and even with brake pads thinning as every kilometre passed and twitchy blinking replacing glasses, we had a blast first picking likely lines of slick-wet root systems that offered only molecules of grip easily wiped with the barest caress of a brake lever. And then on loose rocks hissing evilly and piling up on endless hairpins. This blue trail was as full on as the black discovered the day before rocking twice the gradient but none of the dampness.
In the mountains, everything is bigger and scarier. You trust your brakes and tyres like your best mate. They’ll save you time after time, as long as you don’t take the piss. The bike suffers in this environment tho – chewing through pads, loosening bolts, seizing bearings and rattling the shit out of anything not bolted down. Including vital body organs. But God it’s life affirming. Like a masochist, you know it’s going to hurt but you can’t wait to get back and feel the hit again.
This mentality was clearly responsible for – having deposited a still shivering Nig at Morzine – a jolly jape to adventure our way back to the car at Champery. The rain had lessened to torrential now and a map-lookage suggested we were a few lifts and some nifty navigation from something that felt like success. The beer we’d just quaffed probably helped. Or – as became quite quickly apparent – didn’t.
First peak accessed by telecabin – so far, so squelshy but at least it was warmish and, most importantly, inside. Navigational plan followed precisely saw us arrive at the exact place we’d left some two hours before. Not ideal with the required country being in somewhat the other direction. Back up, shivering, and after a few falls but no submission we found the right lift and headed into Switzerland.
Very slowly. And increasingly cold as we breached the snow line. Earlier in the day, we’d ridden on the track far below our feet, fingers numb and braking an approximation, and we weren’t keen to do it again. Finally cresting the last pylon, we shivered to a decision on exactly how much riding we had left in us. Not enough for 600 metres of mud, wind and rain so instead we took first the chair and then the cable car down. Cowardly? Possibly. Pragmatic? Absolutely.
A couple of beers restored enough spirit for the bike jetwashing to escalate to rider jetwashing, before I smuggled myself back into France (having abandoned my passport to Hadyn who’d we left on a different plan many hours ago) basking in the heat of the car heater.
45k. 3000m of descending. 6 hours in the grim. Quite an experience. No big crashes – I saved those for later in the week. Where the mountains were kinder to us opening up endless vistas taking away any remaining breath. Getting lost, finding the best trails in my riding life, missing the last chairlift home on the wrong side of the mountain before doing it all again the next day.
This is where Mountain Biking actually lives up to its name. There’s nothing all-terrain here. It’s more all or nothing, full on, consequence ridden but full of reward. Stunningly beautiful and more than occasionally scary. Next year we’ll find a way to get back, but already my withdrawal symptoms have my Flickr photostream on repeat.
Luckily tho I live near some mountains. Not as big or impressive, but still full of all those things missing from my mountain biking life. So this weekend I’m off to get my fix. Because mountain biking works best in the mountains.
* I know what you’re thinking. And I wasn’t thinking that. I just knew you probably were. Hence feeling the need to bring it to your attention that I am more than aware of the predilections of most of what I charitably think of as ‘my informed readership‘